Wednesday, August 30, 2017
The Mythology of the Phoenix by Lawrence Leinheuser 1921
THE LEGEND OF THE PHOENIX, by Lawrence N. Leinheuser, M. A. 1921
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Symbolism is an indispensable adjunct to any form of religion. The object of religious worship is a superior being of a higher order of things than that in which man finds himself. Man has no direct experience of the constitution of this higher order, but only inductive and revealed knowledge. From the works and manner of action of the deity he makes inferences regarding its attributes and nature, and, wishing to express this knowledge in the forms of his own experience, he selects from among the mass of objects surrounding him those that have some points of resemblance to the inferred attributes of the higher being and then makes these objects stand as symbols of the higher order. In doing this he is only carrying out a principle operative throughout the whole of man's life, the principle of comparison. This principle is much used in poetry and literature, as the vast number of metaphors and similes in all languages amply attests.
In her work of Christianizing the world the Church adapts herself as far as possible to her surroundings. She does not reject completely the customs and institutions of a people into whose land she carries the good tidings, but endeavors to bring these institutions into harmony with her own doctrines. That which is good she retains, rejecting only what is opposed to her teachings. One cannot suddenly lift a man out of an environment in which he has dwelt for years and set him in entirely strange surroundings without the risk of incurring his enmity and ill-favor thereby. So it comes that we find the early writers of the Church retaining in substance many of the old heathen myths and legends, changing them only to invest them with a Christian atmosphere. And one of the popular tales which our Christian ancestors inherited from their pagan forbears was the legend of the Phoenix.
The story of this bird is of great antiquity, its pagan development reaching back into the distant eras of earliest history. It is attested to by many ancient writers, Christian and pagan; the Book of the Dead contains numerous references to it, and its picture is represented on a number of timeworn tombs and coffins of Egyptian origin. On the obelisk of the Porta del Popolo in Rome, beneath the figure of a king adoring Ra, the following words are found: "Rameses II, son of Ra, who filled the temple of the Phoenix with his splendors." The home of this bird was very likely in the dreamy and fantastic East. The people of the Orient incline to allegorical interpretation, and to them we can look for the source of most of our animal symbolism. The mythologies of many Oriental peoples contain the story of the Phoenix in some form or other. One author states that "the myth of the Phoenix is one of the most ancient in the world," and that "even in the days of Job and David it was already a popular tradition in Palestine and Arabia." The Arabs seem to have identified the Phoenix with the salamander and were firmly convinced of its existence, for they called clothes that were made of incombustible material by the same name, believing these clothes to be manufactured from the hair of this animal. The universality of the Phoenix legend is further evidenced by the assertion of John of Salisbury that the founding of Constantinople was coincident with an appearance of the Phoenix.
In the book which describes his visit to the Egyptians about the year 450 B.C, Herodotus presents a fairly complete description of this remarkable fowl. "There is another sacred bird, called the Phoenix; which I myself never saw, except in a picture; for it seldom makes its appearance among them; only every 500 years, according to the people of Heliopolis. They state that he comes on the death of his sire: if at all like his picture, this bird may be thus described, in size and shape. Some of his feathers are of the color of gold; others are red. In outline he is exceedingly similar to the eagle, and in size also. This bird is said to display an ingenuity which to me does not appear credible: he is represented as coming out of Arabia, and bringing with him his father to the temple of the Sun, embalmed in myrrh, and there burying him. The manner in which this is done is as follows: In the first place he sticks together an egg of myrrh, as much as he can carry, and then tries if he can bear the burden; this experiment achieved, he accordingly scoops out the egg, sufficiently to deposit his sire within; he next fills with fresh myrrh the opening in the egg by which the body was enclosed; thus the whole mass, containing the carcase, is still of the same weight. Having thus completed the embalming, he transports him into Egypt, and to the temple of the Sun."
There is no uniformity of account among the different authors regarding the manner in which the bird meets its death. According to some, among whom we may number Herodotus, it simply suffers a natural death, upon which a new Phoenix grows forth which carries the carcase of its parent to Heliopolis. The Egyptian priest Horapollo narrates that the Phoenix dashes itself to the ground, thereby wounding itself, and from the ichor of this wound its successor is born. But this version was by no means the one generally accepted, the more familiar account running as follows: When the Phoenix-cycle of years is drawing to a close, the Phoenix builds itself on a lofty tree a nest of sweetly smelling herbs and spices. On this nest the bird then voluntarily suffers death by fire, and from its ashes arises a new Phoenix which begins the cycle of years over again. A variation of this account states that the Phoenix directs its flight to Heliopolis, burning itself in that city on the altar in the temple of the sun. Manilius, on whom Pliny relies for his information, states that "from its bones and marrow there springs at first a sort of small worm, which in time changes into a little bird." This worm is not mentioned by all authorities; it is omitted, for instance, by Ovid, Tacitus, and Isidore of Seville; but it is referred to by Lactantius and other Christian writers.
The time which elapsed between the death of the Phoenix and its consequent attainment of former powers was invested by some Christian writers with a symbolical meaning. According to them the Phoenix required three days for its metamorphosis and development to maturity. Thus Epiphanius relates that after the fire has been extinguished "there arises from the ashes of the flesh and bones a worm which soon grows feathers and is transformed into a young Phoenix. The third day the latter arrives at maturity." Pseudo-Jerome gives the same account, as does also the Greek Physiologus. The former writes: "Crastino die de cinere gignitur vermis, secundo plumas effert, tertio ad antiquam redit naturam." Needless to say, this period represented for these writers the time which Christ spent in the sepulchre. In the account of Herodotus we read that the Phoenix places the remains of its parent in an egg and carries this to the temple of the sun. This simile of the egg considered as a sepulchre of the parent bird seems to be peculiar to Herodotus and Lactantius, the great majority of other writers failing to mention this additional circumstance.
The method by which the Phoenix brings about its own de struction by fire is variously stated. In the account of Epiphanius the bird beats its breast long and vehemently, thus bringing forth from its body a flame which ignites the nest. Isidore of Seville has substantially the same account. In "De Ave Phoenice" Lactantius relates that after AEolus has shut up the winds in overhanging caves, lest they collect clouds or otherwise interfere with the action of the sun's rays upon his satellite, the Phoenix builds the nest and then yields up its spirit on "this bed of life."
Then by life-giving death destroyed, its form
Grows hot, the heat itself produces flame,
And from the distant sun conceives a fire;
It burns, and into ashes is dissolved.
The various authors also fail to coincide in their statements regarding the length of the time period at the end of which the Phoenix regularly makes its appearance, Herodotus, as we have seen, asserts the cycle of years to be five hundred. In his Epistle to the Corinthians Clement of Rome states that the priests of Heliopolis take note of the time at which the Phoenix appears at the temple of the sun, and find that it arrives every five hundred years. Some authors assign a thousand years to a period, others one thousand four hundred and sixty-one, while some mention as many as seven thousand years. Tacitus states that "the commonly accepted view is that it lives for five hundred years." This is the estimate popularly accepted, since this number is found in fifteen other authors besides Tacitus. The latter further tells us that the bird made its appearance in Egypt during the consulate of Paulus Fabius Persicus and Lucius Vitellius, A.D. 34, causing much speculation at the time. He also mentions three other appearances of the bird, of which "the first made its appearance in the reign of Sesosis (others give Sesostris); the next in that of Amasis; the third in that of Ptolemeus, third of the Macedonian line." He adds that "the two earlier dates are lost in antiquity; but between Ptolemeus and Tiberius there were less than two hundred and fifty years. Hence some are of opinion that the Phoenix then seen was not the genuine bird." Pliny cites Cornelius Valerianus as his authority in placing the date of the appearance of the last Phoenix in the year A.D. 36. The bird which was exhibited in the Roman forum A.D. 47, Pliny condemns as a shameful imposture.
The period of 1,461 years rests on an astronomical basis. This period was the "annus magnus," or "Canicularis," of the Egyptians, called so because at the end of this interval of years the official calendar of the Egyptians tallied with the astronomical signs of the heavens. The discrepancy between the two reckonings arose from the Egyptian division of the year into three hundred and sixty-five days, instead of the more correct estimate of three hundred and sixty-five and one-fourth days. At the end of 1,461 years, however, it was found that both reckonings coincided, and so this number of years was known as the "annus magnus." It was also called the "Sothis Period," named after the Dog Star, for at the end of this period the rise of this star agreed with the official New Year's Day of the Egyptian civil year.
With the Egyptians the legend of the Phoenix bore an intrinsic relation to their cult of the sun. This is apparent from numerous inscriptions and testimonials from ancient sources. The Phoenix was used principally as a symbol of the rising sun, and around this conception the entire tale revolved. The whole existence of the bird is in some manner or other related to the sun. It owes its very being to the sun (Achilles Tacitus), its nest conceives fire from the sun's rays (Lactantius, Claudian, and others), the time of its death is at sunrise (Horapollo), while the goal of its flight is the temple of the sun or the city of the sun, Heliopolis (Herodotus, Clement of Rome, and many more). On a wooden coffin in the Vatican is found a picture of the Phoenix with these words inscribed: "Glory be to Ra when he rises." The Book of the Dead also contains numerous passages alluding to the intimate connection which existed between the sun and the Phoenix.
The Egyptian word for Phoenix is bennu, derived from a root meaning to turn. But this was also their name for the sun, which signified "the returning traveler." The Egyptians held the opinion that the sun revolved round the earth, disappearing in the evening and making his return in the morning. Now, bennu was also the name of a migratory bird which appeared and disappeared at stated seasons. Hence it was but natural to make this bird of passage the symbol of the rising sun. Seeing the sun reappear each morning also provoked the conception of a resurrection, which in turn was transferred to the bennu. But bennu, as said before, was also the name for the Phoenix. The new Phoenix springing from its parent represented the morning sun slowly rising from out of the darkness of night to a glorious dawn. It also typified the "sun of today springing from the body of the old sun of yesterday, which had entered the lower world and become one with Osiris." Thus it came that the Phoenix also symbolized the union between day and night. The use of the Phoenix as a symbolical representation was therefore developed to a very high degree by the ancient Egyptians.
The Phoenix was also commonly accepted as a symbol of the resurrection. Hence we find the idea of a resurrection current among a heathen nation long before the birth of Christ and symbolized in a beautiful manner. Some of the Roman Emperors placed the picture of the Phoenix on their coins, aiming to suggest through this representation their own apotheosis, or the beginning of a new and more glorious era under their reign. On the coins of Constantine and his sons is found a picture of the Phoenix with the following words inscribed: "Felix Reparatio Temporum," and "Perpetuitas."
Christian authors were therefore only referring to something widely known when they appealed to the tale of the Phoenix in their writings. They appropriated the Phoenix as a heritage from their heathen forbears, using it mainly as a verification and symbol of the resurrection. This was only one of the many symbolical representations current in the primitive Church. Several considerations led the early Christians to make extensive use of symbolism in their religious worship. A predominant motive was the Discipline of the Secret. Acting on this principle, the mysteries and doctrines of the Church were to a great extent represented in an allegorical manner to guard them from abuse and treachery on the part of the heathens. In adopting a symbol, the Christians generally chose a representation which was familiar to the pagans from their own myths and legends, but which also typified very well a particular doctrine of the Christian faith. In this way they did not unduly attract the attention of the pagans. So the figure of Christ carrying the lamb had its prototype in the heathen representation of Hermes Kriophorus.
For the common man a good homely comparison generally sheds more light on a subject than many pages of abstract reasoning. St. Patrick's shamrock is a good illustration in point. This preference for the concrete was another factor in prompting the use of symbolism. Here the Church has the example of the divine parables for a guide. Her churches and cathedrals, especially those built in the Middle Ages, teem with objects having a symbolical meaning, which were placed there to represent to the faithful some article or mystery of the faith. The figures of animals were especially used for symbolic representation. Thus the lion stood for strength and watchfulness, the dove for the Spirit of God, also for peace and purity. By the same token the Phoenix was a favorite symbol among the early Christian writers of the resurrection of Christ and man.
One of the Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Rome, adduces the story of the Phoenix as an analogy in nature of our future resurrection. He first bids his readers observe the process of resurrection which daily takes place throughout material creation. The regular succession of day and night is a representation of the resurrection, as is also the planting and decaying of seed, followed by the growth and development of the plant. Clement then refers to the curious bird that is seen in the Orient, of which there exists only one at a time. He relates that version of the story in which the Phoenix suffers a natural death, changing it only to state that the form feeds on the carcase of its parent and so grows feathers. The Pontiff then adds: "Should we therefore regard it as something marvelous and wonderful, if the Creator of all things shall cause them to rise again who in the firmness of true faith have served Him holily, after He has shown us through a bird the mightiness of his promise?"
Tertullian pursues the same line of argumentation as Clement. He is more expansive on the subject, however, and vastly more rhetorical. He sees the resurrection represented in the regular recurrence of the seasons and in the changes which periodically take place throughout the entire vegetable kingdom. Tertullian then meets the objection of an adversary who might reply that in nature we merely have a restoration and not a reanimation, by referring to a "complete and reliable analogy of this hope (the resurrection); for its object is an animated being, capable of life and death." He thereupon mentions the wonderful bird of the Orient, the Phoenix, and closes his argument by saying: "The Lord has said that we are better than many sparrows; that would be nothing exceptional, if we also were not better than a Phoenix. Should then man perish forever, while Arabian birds are certain of their resurrection?"
Cyril of Jerusalem also uses the Phoenix as a symbol of the resurrection, claiming that God, Who knew the incredulity of the heathens, created the Phoenix as a substantiation of the doctrine. Pseudo-Clement adduces the story for the same purpose, asking why the heathens, who themselves point to the Phoenix as a symbol of the resurrection, should nevertheless "reject our doctrine in which we profess that He Who through His might gave existence to the non-existent can also call this into being again after its dissolution?" Epiphanius draws upon the identical source, as does also Zeno of Verona. The latter adduces it as one of a number of natural analogies of the resurrection and expatiates on the fable in a highly rhetorical manner.
In one of Rufinus's writings we find the legend appropriated to demonstrate a different truth of the faith. Speaking of the virgin birth, Rufinus remarks that in the natural course of things three conditions are necessary to bring forth child. Of these three conditions one was lacking in the virgin birth, for Mary knew not man. Rufinus then cites the tale of the Phoenix as an analogy in nature of this extraordinary happening: "But why should this appear so striking, that the Virgin conceived, since it is established that the bird of the Orient, Phoenix by name, generates itself so effectively without the medium of a mate that it always exists as the only specimen of its kind and ever succeeds itself through birth and rebirth?"
The Phoenix is also alluded to by Eusebius when he asserts that the dead Constantine will live and reign through his sons, not, however, like the Egyptian bird, the only one of its kind, which dies on a sweetly smelling pile and then rises again, the same as before; "but like his Saviour who, as the single seed of wheat planted in the earth to multiply, with the blessing of God sprouted up and filled the earth with fruit, so in like manner has the Emperor multiplied himself in his children."
Origen mentions the Phoenix in his reply to Celsus. In his famous attack upon Christianity, Celsus had, among other things, championed the cause of animals as against man, claiming that the so-called irrational animals were more intelligent and more pleasing to God than man, the rational animal. Celsus contended, for instance, that elephants are faithful in keeping their oaths, and that storks possess more filial love than the children of men. As if to cap the climax of his stupid assertions, Celsus then calls upon the story of the Phoenix as a further substantiation of his contentions. Origen however, questions the truth of the story concerning the famous bird, adding that even if the phenomenon were true, it could still be explained by natural causes. One of the reasons he adduces is that Providence might have created this bird with the intention of thereby evoking man's admiration, not for the Phoenix, but for Him who created the Phoenix.
Literature, both profane and religious, is rich in references to the Phoenix. Shakespeare mentions the bird several times throughout his plays. Ovid devotes considerable space to this wonderful creature, while Claudian of Alexandria has enriched literature with an idyl of more than one hundred lines on the Phoenix. Pliny also gives an account of the bird. Ariosto remarks that in Arabia
The virgin Phoenix there in need of rest
Selects from all the world her balmy nest.
The bird is mentioned in Mandeville's "Travels" and in several other Old English writers. Some of these were perhaps influenced by the poem "The Phoenix," attributed by many authorities to Cynewulf. The following passage is found in Lyly's "Euphues": "For, as there is but one Phoenix in the world, so there is but one tree in Arabia wherein she buyldeth." Then the "Bestiary" of Philip de Thaun contains quite a lengthy account of the Phoenix, which is said to be "shaped like a swan." The remarkable qualities of the bird are attributed by literary writers to persons, men and women. Thus Coryat calls one lady "the Phoenix of her sex," meaning that she is the only one of her kind. George Bernard Shaw makes a similar application: "She, poor girl! cannot appreciate even her own phoenixity." Several allusions are found in Byron's works, also in Thomas Moore's "Paradise and Peri."
One of the most important literary productions on the subject is the poem "De Ave Phoenice," ascribed to Lactantius, whom Jerome calls "a river of Ciceronian eloquence." This poem consists of eighty-five distichs, which treat of the bird and its habits in great detail. The poem opens with a description of the earthly paradise wherein the Phoenix dwells. This is a plain in the far East, in a land where everlasting spring reigns and where the trees bloom in perpetual foliage. Each morning the bird greets the rising sun from the highest tree with wondrous song, which not even the strains of Apollo or Pierian Muses can equal. Lactantius then relates the familiar story about the Phoenix' flight to Syria where it chooses a lofty palm, which has its name (in Greek) from the bird. There it dies by its own funeral rites, and from the ashes a worm arises, developing into a new Phoenix which "sips the delicate ambrosial dews of heavenly nectar which have fallen from the star-bearing pole," for the Phoenix does not feed on earthly food.
A somewhat lengthy description of the bird's external appearance then follows. A multitude of birds gather, giving homage to their leader, and attend the Phoenix on the return flight. Returned to its beloved land, it dwells there, a happy bird, whose delight is in death.
O happy bird, that knows
No bond of love! Death is thy only love,
Thy one delight is death! Thou long'st for death.
That thou may'st be new born. Thou art thyself
Child to thyself, thy father and thy heir.
Both thine own nurse and nursling; still thyself,
Yet not the same, thyself yet not thyself,
Attaining life eterne through fecund death.
The words quoted show how well adapted the Phoenix was as a symbol of the Redeemer who in death overcame sin that through His death all men might live. Just as the Phoenix three days after its death arrives again at full maturity, so Christ on the third day after His ignominious death on the cross arose again from the grave in all His glory and might. Christ is eternal and so enjoys perpetual life. Death has no terror for Him. Thus the Phoenix also stood among the early Christians as a symbol of eternity.
One other great work in literature must needs be mentioned here, the Old English poem "The Phoenix." The author of this poem was most likely the Saxon poet Cynewulf, who flourished in the eighth century. This work is based to a large extent on the earlier poem of Lactantius. Cynewulf probably became acquainted with the tatter's works in the library of the School of York, for Alcuin tells us that Lactantius was numbered among the Christian poets contained in this library.
In the first part of the poem the Saxon author follows his Latin original very closely. But he expands and dilates more on the subject, especially in describing the earthly paradise, the home of the Phoenix. Thus the thirty lines which Lactantius devotes to this theme, Cynewulf extends into eighty-four lines. The Latin model consists of one hundred and seventy lines, whereas the English version is expanded into six hundred and seventy-seven verses. At line 380 Cynewulf leaves the Latin text, and the second part of the Anglo-Saxon poem, in which he makes use of the writings of Bede and Ambrose, is devoted to an allegorical treatment of the life of the Saints and of Christ. Thus he says that Christ "after the Judgment flies through the air attended by all the worshipping souls like birds; and each soul becomes a Phoenix, and dwells forever young where joy never changes, praising God in the burg of life. Then again he makes Christ the Phoenix who passed through the Are of death to glorious life, 'Therefore to Him be praise for ever and ever. Hallelujah!'"
The foregoing has shown what a prominent position the Phoenix held throughout the centuries as a symbolic representation in the thoughts and imaginations of various peoples of different cult and belief. The heathens made extensive use of the legend in their literature and religious writings, and Christian authors did not in the least hesitate to adopt it as a literary weapon in their defense of the faith. As a mythological creation, the Phoenix is far superior to other animals of pagan mythology, for instance, the dragon, centaur, and the sirens. These could boast of few ennobling traits, but in the contemplation of the Phoenix the mind rose to higher and nobler thoughts, which in their essence were distinctly Christian.
Thus the doctrines of the virgin birth, of immortality, and of the resurrection, all preeminently Christian ideas, were clearly portrayed in this beautiful legend. No doubt many people believed in the existence of this wonderful bird. Tacitus, for instance, states that the details concerning the bird "are uncertain and have been embellished by fable; but that at certain times the bird is seen in Egypt, admits of no question." Sir Thomas Browne advances weighty reasons against the existence of the bird, and doubts the probability of Plutarch's saying "that the brains of a Phoenix is a pleasant bit, but that it causeth the headache." We are told by others that of all the birds in Paradise the Phoenix alone refused to eat of the forbidden fruit with Eve, and received as a reward a sort of immortality. Be this as it may, we can truly say that the legend of the Phoenix was one which fired the imagination of man and placed his thoughts on a higher plane. Writers belonging to different centuries continued to draw upon it as a prolific and versatile source for allegorization and literary reference, and so we can apply to the Phoenix legend the words recorded in the Book of the Dead: "Those who were dwelling in their companies have been brought unto me, and they bowed low in paying homage unto me, and in saluting me with cries of joy. I have risen, and I have gathered myself together like the beautiful hawk of gold, which hath the head of a bennu bird, and Ra entereth in day by day to hearken unto my words."
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